According to Jesus in the Parable of the Workers, the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers for his vineyard.

He goes out, hires some guys, and agrees to pay them each a denarius–the standard daily wage at the time. After a few hours, he goes out again, sees guys still hanging around the market who haven’t yet been hired for the day. He tells them to go to his vineyard, and he’ll pay them “whatever is right.” He went out a few hours later and did the same thing, and again a few hours after that. A final time, he goes out and asks the guys remaining why they’re still standing around. They tell him it’s because no one has hired them. They were there, ready to work, but no one gave them the opportunity to work. So, he tells them to go to his vineyard for the final hour of the workday, and says he’ll pay them what is right.

The end of the day comes, and starting with the last ones hired, the owner has his foreman pay the men. They each get a denarius, what he’d agreed upon with the first lot of workers for the day. They each get paid for a full day’s work, even the ones who only worked for an hour.

The guys who worked the whole day started grumbling. They worked through the heat of the day and bore the burden of the work!

The landowner says to them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Jesus concludes this parable, “So the first will be last, and the last will be first.”

The men were given not what they earned, but what they needed to live. They were paid a full day’s wage. A wage that was enough for them to meet their needs and the needs of their family. A living wage.

Maybe the guys who were picked first looked the strongest. I’ll venture to guess the guys hanging around until just before the end of the working day, maybe were the ones who looked a little frail, a little older, maybe a little sleepy. Maybe that’s why no one else picked them. Probably the strongest were picked first, and the weakest were picked last. Maybe they were sick. Maybe they had a wife or a child at home who was. Maybe they didn’t have enough to eat.

In any case, they were eager to work. They didn’t give up, call it a day, and go home at lunchtime to take a nap instead. They stayed at the market, lingering, in the hope that someone would hire them for at least the last hour of the day. They were probably desperate for any work, any income. They probably would have been so ashamed to come back to their families empty handed at the end of the day. But they did all they could, they went to where the work was, and waited. All day. They were finally picked, and I’m supposing would have accepted anything they received, even if it had been a pittance.

Yet they, the weaker ones, get paid first. Their needs get met first. The ones who worked all day still got exactly what they needed, what was agreed upon, what was enough to sustain them in the community. They had no right to complain.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like this. A place where we all have the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to make enough. Even if we weren’t picked first because we’re not the strongest ones. Everyone gets what they need. Everyone has enough to be sustained. No one is starving in the community. No one is out of house and home because they weren’t picked first.

Based on this, the coming Kingdom seems (graciously) not like a capitalistic empire.

It seems like a place where everyone will have enough. All needs will be met, and the landowner is generous and fair. A place where envy doesn’t fly, where people aren’t penalized for not having the opportunity to be picked first, and the ones who work all day long, still are rewarded with exactly enough and what they need.

A place where the expectation is that even the strong will rejoice in the well-being of all, not just themselves. Where they recognize what is enough, and don’t require excess.

I believe everyone should have enough. (And I believe there is enough for everyone.) I believe Christians should live toward, give toward, advocate for, and vote toward a place where everyone has enough. Enough to eat, enough housing, enough clean air and water, enough doctors (and enough resources to pay for their medical treatment without going bankrupt or broke), enough education, enough stability, enough for their kids and aging parents, enough opportunity, enough for a life not constantly on the edge.

Enough can look different for different people. Enough for a woman with a disabled child may include help in her home, support for her child in school. Our families all have different needs. Enough doesn’t necessarily mean we all get the same, it means we get what we need to live and even to thrive.

What enough also entails, it taking just our share. Not our share and our neighbors too.

We live in a society where CEOs make as much in a few hours as minimum wage laborers make in a year. At present, a Wal-Mart minimum wage employee would have to work almost 1,400 hours to make what a CEO makes in one hour (that’s about 35 weeks working full-time). It would take the yearly income of 1,951 workers making the median total pay to pay Discovery Communications CEO for one year.

“Out of Reach found that the average hourly wage needed to rent a $1,006 two-bedroom unit in the United States is $19.35 — or $40,240 per year. That’s more than two and a half times the federal minimum wage, the report noted, and $4 over the estimated average wage of $15.16 that renters earn nationwide.” (Source.) It is entirely possible to work two jobs, six days a week, and still end up homeless.

This is not ok. This does not look anything like kingdom life. This is resource hoarding, the greatest acting as though they deserve to amass great wealth for themselves while the last work two jobs and can still barely afford a place to live.

This parable flips on its head the idea of what we think we deserve or own. I don’t think we can argue with God over deserving more than our neighbor, no many how many extra hours we worked, if they are lacking in opportunity or privilege.

The lucky ones who get picked first don’t get to complain over what comes with being picked first. Which is, work the day, and have enough. They don’t get to put down the ones who were picked last – the unlucky ones who had to wait perilously through the day waiting to see if they’d get to take any food home that night. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is fine, but it’s not ok if we compare ourselves to our neighbors who don’t even have boots, or, as MLK said, if there is someone standing on their boots.

I believe God wants us to have enough, he wants wellness for us. He is destining a kingdom where it is so. Where the strong work and have enough, and where those who have less opportunity still have enough, and even get paid first. Even where the expectation is that we rejoice in everyone having enough, everyone having what they need, instead of getting angry with the father, and flaring our nostrils over what we think we deserve.

Doesn’t God have the right to do what he wills with what he created? We can’t be resentful that our father is generous, and no matter what we think about economics or politics, our worldview needs to be based around the gospel, around the kingdom Jesus’s recorded words teach us about constantly, and this kingdom is a place where the first are last, the last are first, and each person gets to work based on their abilities and opportunity, and all have enough.

How can we live toward this now?

A living wage for all is a good place to start.

But in our imaginings and in our efforts to join in the building of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, what else could this look like? How else can we make the last first in our day-to-day? How can this mindset influence other thoughts and decisions we make?

How can we rejoice when the last have their needs met? How can we accustom ourselves to not grumbling over what we think is ours? How can we recognize when we are hoarding and how can we advocate for more generous living overall?

How can we vote, live, and advocate for a society where it is so?

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5 Comments

Bryan Berghoef · December 5, 2017 at 2:09 pm

Thanks for this post. I like the reading that Jesus is actually talking about wages and workers and economic conditions, and not just giving us a nice allegory about God’s grace being given out equally. Perhaps we can push it a little further, though?

A number of scholars would question whether a denarius was actually a living wage. It was meager, and perhaps not enough to live on. Another reading is that we shouldn’t conflate the wealthy vineyard owner with God, but simple leave him as Jesus describes him: a wealthy elite who takes advantage of a surplus workforce during an economic downturn (work must be hard to come by if there are laborers standing around looking for work at all hours of the day—and this landowner takes advantage of it, hiring people without even allowing them to negotiate for a wage: “I’ll pay you whatever is right” – but right according to him, not the workers).

The workers are the ones who complain at the end of the story, and we’re trained to reject their complaints and side with the landowner, but is that really who Jesus or his audience would side with or be sympathetic to? I have my doubts. Jesus may well be highlighting the workers’ complaint, and showing that it is time to speak up against an economic system that is taking advantage of day laborers who have no resource but their own manual labor.

But at the end of the story the owner shames these workers and their efforts. They have worked all day and he has *not* paid them a proper wage: ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

The landowner unsurprisingly has no sympathy for the workers: “Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me? Take your pay and go.”

See William Herzog’s brilliant work: “Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue for the Oppressed” for a fantastic exposition on this and some other parables.

Thanks for your post! It helps readers think about this parable differently.

    Beth Watkins · December 5, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    Wow! Thanks so much for all of these thoughts! I have a BA in Religion, but I’m no Bible scholar and always appreciate additional perspective, so thank you, and for the suggestion for further resources. I love your shift in perspective of who we are actually supposed to side with in the story, something that hadn’t occurred to me. Nor was I aware about the disagreement among scholars about the actual value of a denarius. That would change things. In either perspective, I think it fits with what we’re taught elsewhere in scripture about “what the kingdom of heaven is like.” I always appreciate being stretched in my theology and understanding of biblical text, so thanks so much! Very appreciated!

      Bryan Berghoef · December 5, 2017 at 3:00 pm

      You bet! Maybe a book to add to the Christmas list? It was mind-blowing to me when I first read this perspective, and it is quite compelling, not to mention timely. I rarely see a more ‘materialist’ reading of the parables so I was intrigued and blessed by coming across yours. Thanks!

Daniel R. Christy · March 19, 2018 at 10:29 pm

Just discovered your blog. Fantastic integration of biblical principles and gospel mindset to real world problems. I appreciate that Bryan above opened up the conversation about different perspectives on interpreting parables because I have a similar point to bring up: the landowner pays them whatever they agreed to. Clearly there was a surplus of labor (we don’t now whether this was for just or unjust reasons, but it is a market condition that Jesus assumes exists and will sometimes exist), and the laborers at the beginning of the day probably felt ok about the offered wage so took it, and the ones later loved it. The point is, the fact that the owner paid them what they agreed to, thereby removing their right to complain, is praised, not condemned. Maybe the denarius was a nice amount, maybe not, we don’t know completely (I am guessing not since it was the common wage and we know that most people then lived at a subsistence level). Either way, the freedom of association and contract between the workers and employer is construed as a positive, or at least not condemned.

I say all that to apply it to something you say later on in your piece: about advocating and voting, political actions, in our world today to move toward liveable wages. What methods are going to be used to extract those extra wages from employers who might not want to pay them? It clearly would be the state making laws to force, under threat of heavy fines and imprisonment, employers to supply this increase in wages. I suppose if they really owed them, that would be fair. But we already have laws that ensure employers pay what is mutually agreed upon between employer and employee at time of of hire. This parable seems clearly to praise the free market condition of wage negotiation that existed in the story. All the workers agreed to it, thereby they have no right to complain. I know as well as you that the government often gives very sweet deals to large companies who buy lots of power in Washington and it disrupts the equality of power in the job market between the individual and the companies. However, as a guiding principle, how can the Kingdom of God be advanced through state force? If there is injustice in pay (there may be), I am quite confidant to say that voting for certain laws that will produce corrective force is not anything that can be justified by this parable. Everyone has the freedom to not work if they don’t like the wage. And there are perhaps ways we can use political means to eleminate loopholes and cronyism that causes the rich to have power over the poor. But active force that would make an employer pay more than they are willing to freely? That isn’t Jesus. And it isn’t this parable either. “Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me?” Asks the landowner. Yes, yes he is. Even if he is a greedy person and his workers are poorly paid. Our mission of building the Kingdom on earth is to win the hearts of the fathers back to the children, not to capture the violent and proud mechanism of the empire through the polls to heavy handedly force the fathers to give their children good gifts. Because it can’t be done. The market, heartless as it can be, has its place in the parables of Jesus. It’s a feature of a cursed world (maybe even an uncursed world, another conversation). If you’d like to talk more about the mindset I’m putting forward, please respond, or follow me on twitter to find something that catches your eye. @DanielRChristy

Good Manners ≠ Kingdom Come – Beth Watkins · March 19, 2018 at 1:38 pm

[…] most people wear, or that Christians are banning the strangers we’re supposed to love, or that people who work two full time jobs are still homeless, or that people in the wealthiest country in the world go bankrupt over medical care, I get […]

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